The dynasty waiting to happen will have to wait a little longer. The UConn women’s freshmen-fueled run to the Final Four ended in a familiar place, the semifinals, for the fourth tournament in a row.
The Huskies ran into the hottest team, and a very hot player Friday night. This year it was Arizona, reaching the Final Four for the first time behind an impressive young coach, Adia Barnes, and Aari McDonald, who burned them with 26 points in their 69-59 victory.
Morgan William and Mississippi State in 2017, Jackie Young and Notre Dame in 2018, Arike Ogunbowale and ND in 2019. This was a little different; UConn hadn’t lost a tournament game by double-digits since 2007.
The Wildcats, a No.3 seed, were the lowest tournament seed to eliminate UConn in 14 years. An experienced team, if not tournament experienced, they were nevertheless unafraid of the specter of UConn and did what very, very few teams ever do: control a game against the Huskies from start to finish. No finger-pointing to be done, Arizona, holding UConn to a season-low 59 points, earned this chance to play Stanford for the championship Sunday, earned it in every way.
And this will yet trigger the familiar spring of Connecticut’s discontent, because the UConn women will always be held to the standard the program has set for itself, that is as inevitable as it is unfair for any team, let alone one as young as this. There is no escaping it, get to 13 straight Final Fours and that becomes the baseline of achievement, not the destination.
“I keep telling people this is not easy and nobody believed me,” Geno Auriemma said.
But the shock will wear off and the hurt will fade and then it will be remembered where UConn is, and what the future looks like. This isn’t the end of the UConn dynasty, it’s the kind of setback, in fact, that’s often needed to launch the next one, even if Auriemma, smarting from his team’s “immaturity,” wasn’t quite ready to look ahead in the aftermath of defeat.
“I’ve been down this road before,” he said. “We’ve lost 10 games in the Final Four and each of them were impactful in some way or another. But the ones that we have lost where we were not up for the moment, weren’t mature enough, experienced enough, didn’t have enough time together, and everybody told me, ‘Listen, this year’s just a set up, this is the building block for the next couple of years. It’s great to say that, not so great today when you’re this far away from playing in the championship game.”
Christyn Williams suggested the Huskies thought the game would be too easy. That’s a telltale sign that the Huskies’ collective lack of experience with these moments finally caught up to them.
But even as he spoke, Auriemma weaved his way toward that perspective. Paige Bueckers, all-everything as a freshman, was stopped this game, harried by McDonald and held to a very difficult 18 points, will be back, a year older, a year wiser, and so will the six freshmen alongside her, like Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl.
Their victory over Baylor on Monday showed they had toughness in them, but each succeeding game in March takes still more toughness. No matter that Arizona was unheralded compared to the rest of the field; the Wildcats were good enough to get here, so they were good enough to win. NCAA Tournament fields are deeper than in the past, the roads will continue to get tougher. Auriemma told the media, as he likely told his team, championships aren’t won just by donning the UConn jersey.
This UConn group had to learn that.
“It shouldn’t have to be a loss for that to happen,” Bueckers said. “But we lost, so we’re trying to gain the positives and just learn from it, to have a killer-mentality no matter who we’re playing, whether it’s the first game of the season or the last game of the season is going to be huge for us.”
Azzi Fudd, Carolina Ducharme and Amari DeBerry will be freshmen with star quality joining this group next year, so it will be that much harder for even the best defensive team to focus so heavily on Bueckers. So this is a dynasty delayed, not denied. The track record bears that out.
“I do think these games do tend to stay with you a little bit longer,” Auriemma said. “And I would say, at least on my end, I’m going to be coaching in the Final Four again next year on April 2, or whatever that date is. What my team is going to look like, I don’t know, because we’ve got a whole bunch of new guys coming in and how that goes.
“I believe that what we learned this year, though all the ups and downs, is going to really benefit us through the next couple of years for sure. I remember saying that in 2008. We lost to Stanford in the semifinal and it was Maya Moore’s freshman year, and I said, ‘we’ll be back,’ and we went undefeated the next two seasons. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but we’ll be back here sooner rather than later.”